At the heart of the first major gaffe of Jeb Bush’s unfolding Republican presidential campaign was something that’s been chewing at him from the start: The family legacy.
Two days after Fox News published a video clip from an interview of Bush saying he would have have authorized the invasion of Iraq—even after knowing the intelligence was faulty—the probable presidential candidate returned to the network’s radio platform to say he flubbed the question.
“I interpreted the question wrong, I guess," Bush said Tuesday on The Sean Hannity Show. "I was talking about given what people knew then would you have done it, rather than knowing what we know now.”
However Bush misinterpreted the question, the misfire on his first response, the refusal to deliver a definitive answer when given a second chance, and his attempt to then brush aside the entire premise (“Mistakes were made, as they always are in life,” he said when Hannity pressed him) shows he still struggles to address the family issues that he’ll continue to face. And as Bush embarks on a two-day swing through the irrigated desert communities of the American southwest, there is no bigger threat to his presidential ambitions.
Nearly 20 percent of those likely to participate in the Iowa caucuses said they won't support a third Bush in the White House, according to a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register Iowa Poll in January. In focus groups convened in March by Bloomberg Politics and Purple Strategies, several Republicans repeatedly pointed to his family's legacy as a problem.
And failing to successfully field questions about his family’s legacy only hurts Bush’s own claim to the Republican crown, which isn’t one of birthright but of electability. He’s the former governor of the biggest—and strangest—battleground state in the nation, where he emerged from the trenches with a record of accomplishment and impressive approval ratings. The implication is that in a hypothetical matchup against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Bush would be the least likely to embarrass the party by suggesting vaccinations were unhealthy, punting foreign policy questions during an overseas trip, or flip-flopping on immigration.
At public events, some voters have said that Bush has eased at least some of their tension over his support for relaxing immigration laws and concerns about Common Core education standards after methodically walks the non-believers through his position. But the question of why voters should back a third Bush president, particularly after the last one led the nation into an unpopular war, has proven more difficult.
Part of the trouble is that Bush knows he must address the family issue—and the inherent questions about foreign policy and American dynasties—yet is clearly conflicted by the task.
“I’m my own man,” he declared during a foreign policy speech in Chicago in February. And in that same speech, he flashed his annoyance that his family name is a political liability. “I love my brother, I love my dad. I actually love my mother as well,” he said. “I hope that’s OK.”
Those competing sentiments aren’t in direct conflict, but Bush is struggling to keep them separate.
Even in the interview with Megyn Kelly on Fox, Bush seemed to be driving with two feet when asked about former President George W. Bush.
On the Iraq question, Bush hit the gas to defend his older brother, pointing out that even George W. believed mistakes were made. “News flash to the world,” Bush said. “If they’re trying to find places where there’s big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of those.”
Yet in a less publicized part of the same interview, he pumped the brakes when asked if he also subscribed to the “Bush Doctrine,” the framework of his brother’s foreign policy that favored pre-emptive military action and abandoned multilateral treaties.
“Am I the same as my brother? Of course not,” Bush said in response. “For example, our foreign policy ought to be grounded in not just the export of our own values or nation building—those are good sentiments—but first and foremost in security and peace.”
He added that American military power should be used "whenever it’s appropriate." "The broad bipartisan consensus in this post-World War II era is to have a certain America, and America that leads, and America that understands its power should be used judiciously,” he said.
When Bush is ready with prepared remarks, he tries to make light of the family concerns. At the start of a commencement speech at Liberty University on Saturday, Bush spoke about his admiration for Jonathan Falwell, the school’s president who succeeded his brother and father in the job. “Somehow, I don’t know what it was, we really hit it off,” Bush said. “I don’t know what’s in store for you Jonathan, but I’m pulling for you, man.”
But in questions from voters or reporters, Bush’s performance has been lacking.
At town-hall style meeting in Nevada in March, a man tried to ask Bush how he was different from the rest of Republican field. But the former governor heard something else, and launched into a defense of the 41st and 43rd presidents. When the man explained he had a different question, Bush laughed it off.
“Oh geez,” he said. “I didn’t even have to answer that question.”
Similarly, when Kelly at Fox News asked Bush in the interview after the commencement speech on Saturday about whether he’d authorize the war in Iraq even if he knew the intelligence was faulty, Bush seemed to provide an answer to a different question.
Still, his affirmative answer sparked news headlines and editorial outrage.
When the interview aired on Monday night, even Kelly defended Bush. But the damage had been done.
The interview was quickly employed in a web ad by the Democratic National Committee, which borrowed Bush's ready-made line "News flash to the world: if they're trying to find places where there's big space between me and my brother, this might not be one of them."
As New Jersey Governor Chris Christie showed on Tuesday, Bush's Republican rivals also moved quickly to use his words against him. "If we knew then what we know now and I were the president of the United States, I wouldn't have gone to war," Christie said in an interview with CNN. "But, you don't get to replay history."
Linking the younger Bush with his older brother's war could hold big political benefits, given that 71 percent of Americans said that the war in Iraq “wasn’t worth it,” as a 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows, a level negativity that rivals opinions of the Vietnam War. Multiple Gallup polls conducted from 1999-2000 found that about 7 in 10 Americans said that 1970s war was a “mistake.”
That Bush's team of foreign policy advisers include several men who helped guide his brother into that conflict—neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and John Hannah—only invites comparisons to his sibling on the subject.
Indeed, Iraq has repeatedly proven a vexing topic during Bush's unofficial presidential campaign.
In December, he struggled to get the word Iraq out of his mouth as he suggested that President Barack Obama would have been wise to maintain troop levels in Iraq as the U.S. has in South Korea. “This president missed an opportunity to do the exact same thing in, in, in, um, Iraq,” he said.
Speaking to reporters in February, Bush previewed his first major foreign policy speech by saying he wasn’t interested in “re-litigating anything in the past.”
“I won’t talk about the past,” he said, when asked about Iraq and Afghanistan.
As the past week demonstrated, that strategy hasn't quite panned out.